Vandever Mountain, Florence Peak, Sawtooth Peak #1, Needham Mountain
By: Mark Adrian
After threats of inclement weather in the Palisades, I quickly scrambled for a contingency and headed towards Mineral King on the weekend of August 8 -9, 1997. Joining me were Paul Graff and Asher Waxman from Los Angeles. It was good to get away from the heat here in San Diego. The road to Mineral King is in good condition from highway 198 and takes about 90 minutes to drive its 25-mile entirety. There is an NPS kiosk about eight miles in, which is more than happy to take your entrance fee. There are leased cabins at the very end of the road and I was told that Disney still owns property back up there at the parking lot just west of the pack station. There is a small hut near the NPS Ranger station to store food and I only saw two cars that were "wrapped" in chicken wire. Also there, are working public phones, several picnic sites and a campground (which was filled at 2pm Friday when I arrived).
We met Friday evening at the Farewell Gap trailhead parking lot and decided to get an early start Saturday morning. Our plan was to dayhike Vandever and Florence on Saturday and Sawtooth and Needham on Sunday, two aggressive days. Saturday morning 5:30am, with hardly any twilight, we began hiking up the Farewell Gap trail, which begins just beyond (south of) the pack station's cabins at around 7830'. The trail is in excellent condition and we arrived at Farewell Gap (10,586') at 8am. Greeted by a chilling wind, we took a short break then headed west up the class 1-2 loose-talus slope towards Vandever's (11,947') summit. We arrived at the summit at 9:10am where it was surprisingly calm despite the forming cloud cover. We spent nearly 30 minutes on top enjoying the views and reviewing the register.
From there, we descended back to Farewell Gap trail and proceeded southward over the Gap to the second major hairpin switchback (10,500' +/-) where we left the trail and contoured/diagonally over loose scree up to the lowest of the two Bullfrog Lakes. Here we stopped to rest. Continuing up the drainage, we found bits and pieces of what appeared to be a military plane wreckage just above the highest of the Bullfrog Lakes. Paul carried out much of the metal shrapnel for his collection. From here, slabs then loose sand slopes and finally, boulders led to Florence's western ridgeline. Paul skillfully picked the way through this maze of large third class boulders to Florence's summit (12, 432'). On the summit there are oddly enough, two primary benchmarks and several competing highpoints. We climbed them all, of course. We arrived on top at 1pm under dark and cloudy skies, yet, we didn't feel threatened by the changing weather and spent half an hour reviewing the register and picking our distant peaks.
Our descent route headed north, through a large class two boulder field to the sandy flat area just south of Franklin Pass where we picked up the good trail heading back to Farewell Canyon and Mineral King. We arrived back at the trailhead near 5:30pm. Round trip stats: 6,000' gain/loss, 15 miles, your time may vary.
Sunday morning, at 5:20am, Paul and I (Asher opted to sleep in and breakfast at Silver City) departed the Sawtooth Pass trailhead, headed for Sawtooth Peak. About 7:30am, we were surprised to meet Barbara Cohen and David Sholle who were just leaving Monarch Lakes after a multi-day trip into Big Arroyo. Fortunately for us, they had done Sawtooth and Needham the day before and gave us some excellent advice: DONT attempt to stay on or too near the ridgeline connecting the two peaks, rather, drop down to 11,500' and contour. It turned out to be good advice, saving us time and energy.
Once beyond Monarch Lakes (point 10,399T on the 7.5-min. map) we discovered the trail frayed and braids into many sand-strewn options. We concluded we were never on the "true" trail much above Monarch Lakes, but instead, had slogged up one of the many options to the 11,700' elevation on Sawtooth's northwest ridgeline. We arrived at the ridgeline at 8:45am. This was an expletive-inducing plow through thick sand, the first of several this day. From the northwest ridgeline, we picked our way southeast, diagonally to just below the final summit boulders. We reached Sawtooth's summit (12,343') at 10am. The final move, the summit's highpoint is class three. We found the ammo-can register just below this. We now had a great view over to Needham and concurred with David and Barbara's advice. Picking our way southeast, descending from Sawtooth's summit, we encountered loose sand and talus (which would have to be regained later) down to 11, 500'.
Looking up to the ridge was daunting. Secor recommends staying "just below" to avoid obstacles, but "just" in this case was more like a couple hundred feet. Continuing east we regained the ridgeline at the shallow saddle just west of Needham. Occasionally picking up David and Barbara's footprints. From here up to the summit block is nothing less than a trudge up loose sand with occasional boulders for handholds. Again, more expletives made this an "easier" climb and we arrived at Needham's summit (12,520') register at 12:30pm. The only redeeming thing about Needham's summit, other than the view, are the two or three third class moves up to the highest point, which is the western most of several "available" blocks/crags. Again, thanks to David and Barbara for their timesaving information.
We departed the summit area about 1:00pm retracing our steps westward. However, we were able to stay about 200 to 300' below Sawtooth's summit on the south side. From here, we retraced a variety of use trails (lots of traffic on this summit) northwest. Be sure not to attempt to descend towards Monarch Lakes too soon, as you'll get cliffed out as happened to us. Rather, continue northwest until you can clearly see a complete path down to the campsite area (bearbox and pit toilet). Soft sand makes this a quick descent and we returned to the trailhead at 5:15pm. Round trip stats: 6,200', 13 miles, your time may vary.
Thanks to Paul and Asher for their company, conversation and route finding assistance. They returned to LA Sunday evening, while I opted to camp just outside the Park and then headed for Bakersfield and Onion Valley the following day.
Neither Roper nor Secor have a description of this northerly peak, and neither the PCS nor the SPS web archives have any information on it either. It's on "the list", however. In response to my query on the lomap-peak-climbing list, Underwood told me that Black Hawk was not too challenging and probably no one had thought it worth writing a report on. In the interest of adding to the climbing archives, here it is:
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